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Is retail enthusiasm for mobile apps waning?

A number of the retailers presenting at last week’s eTail East 2014 conference came down on the side of mobile sites in the ongoing debate over native applications vs. the Web, pointing to the larger issue of how best to reach shoppers across a multitude of devices.

To summarize the argument, apps allow for more functionality (push notifications, geo-location, barcode scanners), while mobile sites have the advantage of alluring casual mobile searchers across a range of devices. However thanks to responsive and adaptive design, mobile sites can now offer many of the same features as apps.

“Businesses often rush apps to market and don’t think through the end-game,” said Joel Evans, vice president of mobile enablement at Mobiquity. “Due to the high-demand in this area, many businesses fail to consider all essential pieces of the development process, such as a flawless user experience.”

“Research has shown that approximately 70 percent of users lose faith in a brand if an app frustrates them, and one in five apps is only ever used one time. After much time and effort have been invested in development, these statistics can be disparaging.”

The debate
At the 2014 eTail East summit in Philadelphia, many retailers such as The Line, Pet360 and Motorcycle Superstore, admitted to choosing responsive Web designs over apps because of cost-effectiveness and universal user access.

The debate over whether apps would succeed ended a couple years ago, as evidenced by Facebook’s decision to focus on mobile apps.  Not only are apps responsible for virtually all mobile engagement, but comScore reported in June that mobile apps now account for more digital media time than the traditional Web.

Flurry Analytics expressed a similar viewpoint, stating that of the 2 hours and 42 minutes the average U.S. mobile consumer spends on their device, 86 percent of that time is in apps. But for most businesses, apps are unnecessary; a well-executed HTML5 site should cover all their needs.

As Web sites evolve and new solutions for optimizing them across devices become better, it seems that the need for native mobile apps is reducing. However, it mostly depends on the objective. There are some functional things that a native app is better for.

“Apps don’t make sense if all you need is a brochure Web site,” said Jarah Euston, vice president of analytics and marketing at Flurry. “No one will open a business’ app for basic info like address and hours. A Web site is much better suited to those objectives. However if there are actions you want consumers to take, such as buying something, an app is a much better way to go.”

Apps can be customized specifically for a user experience and a device. This makes native apps much more immersive and attractive to the end-user. There are a variety of techniques, including the ability to code in more features and functionality into the native client, which can create a faster, more inviting user experience, since most of the application resides on the device and only needs to call services for data and related information.

More recently, apps have been linked directly to wearable devices, which allows for even more control of the user experience and behavior of the application.

Furthermore, if the ultimate goal is customer retention, then apps are a better way to encourage brand loyalty by persuading customers to download an app that they find so useful they engage with it every day.

Responsive design will allow a company to serve the lowest common denominator of mobile users, but usually doesn’t go into specific, native-focused design. Native apps also allow the developer to take full advantage of all a device has to offer. This means that as Apple or Google, for example, release a new hardware-related feature on their device, a native app can immediately take full advantage of it, whereas it may not be fully accessible by a responsive site.

But experts are still wary.

“I would say that if retailers are facing a decision between investing in responsive design, and gaining the benefits of one platform and look and feel to support tablet and mobile and even desktop, versus in an app, I would have to recommend investing in responsive design,” said Nikki Baird, managing partner at Retail Systems Research.  “At the moment, it’s the best way to create a consistent experience that is also tailored to each device format.”

Challenges and risks of apps
Apps are generally more expensive to develop, require release cycles and in the case of Apple, approvals. Websites can be updated on the fly whereas businesses need consumers to adopt the new version of your app. A business can’t just release an app and call it a day- it requires investment and improvement over time.

“Most apps fail because the company is focusing too much on downloads and new users,” said Brian Suthoff, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Localytics. “Yes, it’s important to have users and to grow the number of them; but it’s more important to make sure your app is delivering on the value it promises.”

“App discovery is another major pain point which must be considered,” said  Mr. Evans at Mobiquity. “Without a well-planned go-to-market strategy and awareness campaign, it is difficult to entice users to download their applications, and very few apps attain a high level of visibility in the app store.”

“Many consumers, especially when making ‘spur of the moment’ purchase decisions, initially access mobile sites through search on their devices and thus they gain more organic traffic than an app might.”

Other than discoverability, there are a few often-cited challenges associated with native app development such as lack of talent.

“There are fewer developers out there with the skill set for apps than there are for responsive websites,” Mr. Evans at Mobiquity said. “Another challenge is the higher costs associated with building native applications.”

The bottom line
Apps are able to provide richer and usually more user-friendly experience vs a mobile site. For example, it’s much easier to shop in Gilt’s app versus on their mobile site, and that’s because with an app they can cater the design to the specs of the device and leverage the hardware’s functionality, such as tapping, much more easily.

Gilt mobile site

“For businesses, there’s also a lot of additional functionality that can be bundled in an app such as  location targeting, notifications, and with the upcoming iOS 8 even more will be possible, such as taking actions inside push notifications,” Ms. Euston at Flurry said.

“The reason apps are sometimes looked down upon is because businesses don’t know how to use them, and don’t spend enough to support adoption of them by their customers,” said Ms. Baird at RSR.

“They make an app, they throw it in the app store, and then they don’t provide either support in terms of awareness campaigns, nor compelling functionality that is different or better than the site.”

“Mobile sites are easier, but it’s much more difficult to create a personalized experience because you don’t get the persistent log in that you’d get from an app,” she said.

Final Take
Michelle is editorial assistant on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York